NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 13, 2012

City to NRA: More expertise Assurances sought on waterfront project plans

BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
STAFF WRITER

---- — NEWBURYPORT — City officials are recommending that the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority procure more technical expertise before it extends a Request for Proposals (RFP) to developers interested in creating two commercial structures and a park on the NRA’s riverfront land.

At the NRA’s regular meeting last night, Vice Chairman John Morris read a letter from Andy Port, director of municipal planning and development, who said that the city wants to be assured that NRA leaders are prepared to adhere “to the regulatory requirements for a project of this scope.”

Port wrote, “We suggest that prior to the issuance of an RFP, the NRA obtain the following additional services (to address the following), which will resolve any uncertainty that exists on specific elements of the project:”

Permitting obligations of the NRA.

Closeout obligations of the NRA.

Procurement obligations of the NRA.

Geotechnical assessment of the project site.

Morris, sitting in for absent Chairman James Shanley, said, “The city is suggesting steps to move the project forward, and we are in agreement in spirit.”

City Hall observers had expected the NRA to discuss its RFP last night, but Morris said it was not complete.

Instead, members reacted to the letter from Port, which they said they received about 5 p.m.

It appears that city officials want to make sure that the five-member voluntary board has enough technical expertise at hand to move forward on what could be a complicated project.

The NRA, which owns 4.2 acres along the riverfront, has announced its intention of improving parkland near the Merrimack River. To do that, it proposes to create two income-producing commercial buildings that they say will offer shops, restaurants and perhaps 30 to 35 condominium units.

Local historians say this property has been used by numerous polluting industries over the centuries, and significant research must be done relating to the quality of the soil.

In addition, state and federal agencies have provided financial grants over the years, and their interests must be acknowledged if land is going to be sold and/or transferred.

Given the technical challenges ahead, it appears that the city is seeking to increase its influence on the project. The NRA has the authority to make final decisions.

In a statement made prior to the NRA meeting, Mayor Donna Holaday, responding to a question about ownership of this riverfront property, said: “The NRA has had ownership of the land on the Central Waterfront since the initial Urban Renewal of downtown. Although several attempts have been made to identify the highest and best use of this property, there has been no movement on this for years.

“The city stepped in as a partner with the NRA to be a key player at the table with MassDevelopment and Union Studio as we work together to build more open space and park, reduce parking and create a cohesive plan with our downtown that includes limited mixed used development as a means to fund the desired improvements.”

NRA members last night noted that they are working with MassDevelopment, a state agency, and with Abramson & Associates, development specialists.

Adam Guild, treasurer of the NRA, last night was named to work with Port and city officials on the geotechnical assessment of the project site.

Guild is a senior project manager for The Martins Companies, a design, construction and real estate development firm in Danvers.

Morris said that NRA lawyer Carol Powers has done significant preparation regarding permitting, closeout and procurement. She will report back to the NRA board and indicate whether outside help is needed.

Last night’s meeting drew spirited questions from the audience prior to the introduction of Port’s letter. The attendance of two dozen was larger than usual.

Resident and construction manager Jim McCauley asked if any of the board members had experience in running a $25 million project. (Guild said that he has run an $8 million undertaking.)

Mary Carrier, the former mayor, inquired whether the NRA is open to new thinking or whether it will adhere to an outline created by Union Studio, a consulting firm that proposed a plan last summer.

Morris said the board is open to suggestions, and that the NRA has not decided whether to sell or lease the land.

The voice of Port, though he was not present, appeared to have the most influence. His letter even suggested that the NRA pass a motion “to sign contracts not to exceed $25,000 in total” to hire consultants to support the project.

The NRA did not bring that motion to the floor, saying they will assess what has been done already and move forward at the next regular session.

The NRA did vote to extend its parking contract with the city for another year. The organization has about $182,000 in its money market fund, much of it from parking revenues it derives from the lots on its property.